In an environment where dissidence is considered an act of rebellion, even sedition, where people are thrown into jail for standing up for rights, and where even a cartoon or a joke can get the politicians riled up, some Indians have let it be known that they will not get cowed down. Especially when it comes to matters of dignity and livelihood.
The focus this year has been on the dreaded coronavirus, which has rampaged through the entire world, laying low millions of people and leaving a brutal trail of death behind it. This resulted in a global lockdown; in India, we were given barely four hours notice to arrange for food, medicines and other essentials before the lockdown kicked in. It caused chaos and hardship, but this anxiety-inducing suddenness has now become the norm for this government and for Narendra Modi.
The price was paid by millions of migrants who set out to walk hundreds of miles to reach their far away homes, because they wanted to be with their families. Many died on the way, and often states tried their best to not allow their own people to cross the borders. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi asked the people of India to bang on their thalis, ostensibly to build morale as the coronavirus is driven away.
Meanwhile, small businesses have been wiped out – young people working on their own or in the service industry, are jobless. They see an uncertain future ahead. The street hawkers and self-employed – plumbers, carpenters, waiters – came back to the city to find there was no work available.
In this disheartening year, with the economy at its lowest in recent years, the government did two things – go after dissidents and push through laws without consultation. Umar Khalid was picked up and remains, to this day, in jail. The Bhima Koregaon accused are still imprisoned, and the state has shown no humanity towards even older prisoners such as Varavara Rao and Father Stan Swamy.
Yet, the spirit of dissidence, of asking questions, of standing up to fight for rights and dignity continues.
The new year began with the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which began in December 2019 but hit their stride in 2020, as the women settled in and the attacks against them escalated. The agitation lasted 101 days, finally ending because of the COVID-19 lockdown. The CAA has not been withdrawn, but its rollout has been delayed; in West Bengal, the BJP is not talking about CAA and NRC in its campaign. That should count as backtracking, or even a victory of sorts.
And now the year is ending with farmers protesting against the three new farm bills, that were passed in a hurry by the government during the lockdown. From the looks of it, this protest too will spill over to 2021.
The women of Shaheen Bagh were against the CAA because they saw it as anti-minority, specifically against the Muslims of India. There was a real danger that many of them would be declared non-citizens because they didn’t have some document or the other. In effect, they would become stateless and could be locked up.
For the farmers as well, it is a question of survival. The farm bills will disempower them, forcing them to sell at prices that will eventually be dictated by large corporates who will buy produce. They will have to switch to crops that are in demand by the big buyers. And, they will have little or no legal recourse left in case of a dispute – a local bureaucrat will decide the merits of the case. The present system of selling through the APMCs is flawed, but the so-called reforms are worse.
The BJP and its spokespersons, online and on television, have spared no effort to rubbish the farmers – they found something to criticise even in the fact that pizza was served at the fast. They have painted the farmers as anti-national Khalistanis. Then, realising that it wasn’t working, the trolls, and even ministers such as Ravishankar Prasad, attacked ‘the tukde tukde gang’ for orchestrating the protests.
This is the Standard Operating Practice for the BJP – whenever anyone disagrees with the government, it hurls an abusive epithet at them, however bizarre it may sound. One suspects they do it on auto-pilot, with no sense of whether it makes sense or not. The efficacy of this tactic has now worn out and it certainly hasn’t worked with the farmers.
In the case of the anti-CAA protestors, it was relatively easier to ignore and attack them – many Indians are already inclined to think the worst of Muslims and are pre-disposed to communal prejudice. The sight of so many women, including a few who were wearing burqas, fed straight into the notions of Muslims being a community who have not fully joined the mainstream and even produce terrorists.
The firing by a random shooter, the incendiary speeches of Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra and the non-stop propaganda on television had the necessary impact on even those who were not necessarily devotees of this government and its leader.
With farmers, it is a different story. The farmer is a noble figure in the Indian mind – toiling in the sun to produce food that feeds the community and the nation. And in return, the farmer gets a pittance while the middlemen make big profits. Often, agriculture remains the best performing sector in the economy, and it is the one that gets step-motherly treatment from governments, whichever one they may be.
The Sikh farmer has an even more positive image, not the least because Sikhs are perceived as hardy and yet jolly folk who not just produce but also fight for the nation. To paint them as anti-national is laughable. Punjab is one state where Hindutva has not fully taken root and where there is a strong sense of community and belonging. The Golden Temple is seen as a serene and peaceful place. The concept of seva, as often manifested in the langars that feed any and everybody for free, marks Sikhs as a fully integrated and secular community. One can only ask – what were the BJP’s IT experts thinking when they launched their campaign of calumny against the farmers?
It has been a surreal year in many ways, and at the end of it, we are still unsure of how to cope. New lockdowns are being enforced in different parts of the world. A new mutant strain of the virus has been found. Vaccination has yet to begin and will take months. Things will not get back to ‘normal’ very soon.
In the circumstances, protests may look out of place, because there are bigger issues to focus on.
But, protests – and not only in India – remind us that the citizen cannot be expected to simply give up and accept whatever the government says and asks us to do. Thali-banging is all very well, but more serious answers are needed to know about how the economy will be revived, whether jobs will return, and most importantly, if the rights of citizens will be protected.
In the US, people marched unitedly under the banner of Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis. Solidarity marches were held around the world. The Trump administration reacted violently, but many states decided to look at their laws and policing and see how these could be bettered.
The protests in India, whether in Shaheen Bagh or the highways outside Delhi, where farmers continue to sit despite the bitter cold and even though many have died, tell us that Indians will always stand up against discrimination.
It is telling that the protesting farmers are also expressing solidarity with jailed dissidents and demanding they be released. Their fight is not only for themselves, but against injustice. As we enter another uncertain year, possibly as bleak as the one coming to a close, these kinds of gestures offer hope that Indians will forever continue their argumentative ways.